2. Basic oral vowels
3. The French nasal vowels
6. Main differences between English and French vowels
This essay will discuss the differences between English and French vowels, diphthongs, nasals and semi-vowels.
A vowel comes “from the vocal cords and [is] modified by the buccal cavity”. The height of the tongue (high, mid, low), the position of the tongue (anterior, central, posterior) and the position of the lips (rounded, non-rounded) distinguish the vowels from each other. Speaking through the nasal cavity creates nasals. If two vowels merge into one another in a syllable, one calls that a diphthong. Glides lie between vowels and fricatives.
There are only oral vowels and diphthongs in English, oral, nasal and semi-vowels in French. The last group belongs to the consonants in English.
Although some of the signs of the IPA are the same in both languages, there are often many differences in the way of pronouncing them and these differences will be explained in the following chapters.
2. Basic oral vowels
Although there are /a/ sounds in both languages, they are not identical. Therefore, they are called allophones. There is the [a] and the [α] in French. The vowel [a] is open, anterior and non-rounded. [α] is also open and non-rounded but posterior. So they are very close to each other and their minimal difference is suppressed by most of the speakers in favour of [a] whose frequency is higher than the frequency of [α]. But there are still some minimal pairs, e.g. tache/tâche where the different /a/ sounds play a distinctive role in the meaning of the word.
The English [æ] is anterior, relatively low and non-rounded. [Λ] is non-rounded, posterior and open-mid, [ ] is an open, posterior and rounded vowel. The long vowel [α:] is open, posterior and non-rounded, lower than [ ].
The French /a/ sounds are closer to each other than the English, they are more central.
There are two types of /i/ sounds in English: the short [ı] and the long [i:]. [ı] is anterior, close but relatively centralised and non-rounded, [i:] is close, anterior and non-rounded. [ı] is lower and further back than [i:]
[i] is the only /i/ sound in French. It is close, anterior and non-rounded.
Comparing the English and French charts, you can see that the French /i/ sound is more anterior and more closed than the English /i/ sounds.
The French [u] is closed, rounded and posterior, the English [υ] is rounded, posterior and half-closed, lower than the longer [u:] which is posterior, close and rounded. [υ] is lower and further anterior than [u:].
The French [u] is closed, rounded and posterior. Compared to the English /u/ sounds, it is further posterior.
The English [e] is non-rounded, anterior and half-closed. [З:] is long, central, non-rounded and half-closed. The schwa [ ] is central, non-rounded and half-closed. It is lower than [З:] and [e] and always non-stressed. It is the most frequent vowel in the English language. It also exists in French, called e muet. It can disappear completely from the pronunciation by speaking fast or in a certain serious of sounds.
The French [e] is non-rounded, half-closed and anterior. It is more closed than the French [ε] which is half-open, also non-rounded and anterior. They have the same length. The [e] cannot be medially in a word, the [ε] sound can be at the end of a word in certain dialects in the North of France. In word-final syllables, they cause different word meanings when the syllable is open, e.g. allé/allait, and in closed syllables, there is a neutralisation in favour of [ε], e.g. premier/première. The English [e] is more open than the French [e] and the French [ε] is more open than the [ε] in English but only a little bit.
There is only one /o/ sound in English. [ :] is a long vowel that is rounded, posterior and mid-high.
 Pierre A. R. Monod, ‘French vowels vs. English vowels’, The French Review, v XLV (October 1971) p. 89.
 A single sound is called monophthong.
 They are also called semi-vowels or approximates.
 Fricatives are e.g. /f/ and /v/, /s/ and /z/.
 International Phonetic Association
 cf. Pierre Delattre, Comparing the phonetic features of English, French, German and Spanish (London: Harrap, 1965), pp. 50-51; Bernard Tranel, The Sounds of French (Cambridge: UP, 1987) pp.36-37.
 cf. Monod, p. 91
 cf. Delattre, pp. 50-51
 cf. Tranel, p. 51
 cf. ibid, p. 52